May 17, 2016

TSG IntelBrief: Al-Qaeda’s Most Critical Battleground

• Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri’s recent statement regarding the possibility of al-Qaeda declaring an emirate in Syria has refocused attention on the group’s intentions in the country

• Al-Qaeda has long been deeply involved in Syria, both during the Iraq War as well as throughout the ongoing civil war

• To garner local support and frame itself as part of the broader Syrian opposition, al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra has constructed a reputation as a Syria-focused group—while simultaneously serving as a host for senior al-Qaeda operatives and officials

• It remains to be seen how much of its true al-Qaeda nature Jabhat al-Nusra will reveal given the potential costs for the group; whether al-Qaeda declares a Syrian emirate or not, the group will continue to pose a significant threat to Syria and the broader region.

Short of Ayman al-Zawahiri relocating to Idlib, there is little more al-Qaeda can do to signify the critical importance Syria holds for the terrorist group’s future. Jabhat al-Nusra is much more than al-Qaeda's very capable Syrian branch; it is also a much needed opportunity for the group's senior leadership and operatives to engage in what has become the central jihadist war of this generation. There is a strong argument that al-Qaeda needs al-Nusra more than the other way round. To be sure, al-Nusra has benefited greatly from being an al-Qaeda affiliate, but its ties to other rebel groups—including those the West deem moderate according to varying definitions—and its single-minded focus on fighting the Assad regime have helped it earn its reputation as a group of disproportional importance in the Syrian civil war.

The recent statement by al-Zawahiri that laid out the possibility of al-Qaeda—through its well-regarded affiliate—announcing an emirate in Syria has refocused attention on the group's interests in the country. The fact is, however, that al-Qaeda has viewed Syria as central to its future since even before the onset of the Syrian civil war. Al-Nusra's split with the so-called Islamic State was a clear choice for al-Qaeda—a choice al-Qaeda badly needed al-Nusra leader Mohammad al-Julani to make, given the increasing centrality of the Syrian war in the larger global jihadist movement. Had al-Julani chosen to merge with the Islamic State, al-Qaeda would have been relegated to the sidelines in a fight in which it needed to have a significant presence. 

The presence of such a capable affiliate in the Syrian conflict gave al-Qaeda more than a symbolic role in the fighting; it gave the group a much-needed physical destination to dispatch senior members and fighters to increase loyalty to al-Qaeda through inspiration and direction. The ‘Khorasan Group’—a U.S. government-labeled contingent of high-level senior al-Qaeda operatives sent to Syria—was thought to represent a Western-focused threat, ostensibly using Syria as a sanctuary to plot external attacks. However, the combat operations of the U.S.-led coalition in Syria make the country poor sanctuary for well-known terrorists. More significantly, the presence of such high-profile senior members—reported to have included individuals such as Muhsin al-Fahdli and Saif al-Adl—provides a living bridge between al-Qaeda’s legendary past and its uncertain future—though that future is certain to include Syria.

It is no secret to anyone in Syria that al-Nusra is an al-Qaeda affiliate. Until now, however, that reality has mattered far less to the local population than has the group's value in fighting the Assad regime—which is the overwhelming focus of the broader rebel coalition. Recent reports suggest many Syrians have no desire to live in an emirate run by al-Nusra or any other terrorist group, but that worry is a distant concern. Defeating Assad is an immediate challenge for which distasteful alliances are tolerated, despite the potential long-term consequences. The more al-Nusra pushes a clear al-Qaeda message, however, the less support it will likely receive. It is unknown whether al-Nusra will spend its hard-earned local capital on establishing an emirate, which would likely benefit al-Qaeda more than al-Nusra. Regardless of whether an emirate is declared, al-Qaeda and al-Nusra will retain a strong presence on the ground, and al-Qaeda will seek to ensure its future in the pivotal Syrian battleground through al-Nusra.


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